You are what you wear

3 min read

Published in ifa 7 March 2016.

You are what you wear. Well, maybe you're not, but pretty much no one is going to stick around to find out if they don't like what they see.

Most of us have heard the statistic that you have seven seconds to make a good first impression. What you wear, how you wear it and how you carry it are vital.

Your clothes are hugely important but so is the way you present – your posture, your attitude and even your weight.

When politicians decide to go for the top job, typically they will tidy their appearance, (including eyebrows – remember when John Howard cut his?), lose weight (Al Gore in 2000), and change what they wear.

It's not just in politics. In any kind of business, the advice is to dress for the job you want. There's a simple logical reason for this. You want to give people a preview of how you'd look in the role, so you show them – right in front of their eyes. It can't be more straightforward than that.

As you climb the corporate ladder or become more important in your business, you are likely to have more client contact and need to impress new teams of people.

In that critical seven seconds of first meeting you need them to translate your appearance into ideas such as capable, confident, professional and representative. You want those who report to you to feel that you are a good representative of them.

Many offices have a casual Friday policy or even an all-time casual policy. If you notice, even when they do have these days, the top brass always dress as smartly as they can.

Your clients should also see themselves reflected in your appearance.

Different industries have different dress codes. Make sure that yours is appropriate for your environment. If you're not in a techie role or company, trainers or sneakers to work is probably not going to get you too far up the ladder.

For women, suits are always going to mean serious business, but it's not necessary these days to wear the full suit. Dresses are equally suitable, and a matching or contrasting jacket will give it an edge of seriousness.

For men, a suit and tie are typical of serious business, but in many businesses ties are no longer de rigueur and so it is perfectly acceptable to look smart without one. But it doesn't mean just wearing a loose look and casual shirt. A smart business shirt sans tie is great.

Unfortunately, for women, it's arguably more important to pay attention to your appearance.

There are two main reasons:

  • There are fewer of us as you climb the ladder so we stand out from the norm.

  • There are more variations we can make to our appearances and so more that can potentially go wrong. For instance, men need to have neat nails, which means just keeping a good length and clean, women might wear polish in which case this adds to the neat length and cleanliness and adds no chipped polish or garish colours. It's arguably easy for men to look more professional: a tailored shirt and well cut pair of trousers is it. For women, there are varying lengths, fabrics and colours to choose from for outfits. And fashion can come into it. Some seasons look more professional than others and while men can stick with the same basics, women need to update more.

I cannot bear to see people wearing thongs in a non-beach environment. It simply says: I couldn't be bothered wearing shoes today. A pair of flat shoes is infinitely preferable for transition to work attire.

For women, it's also important not to dress like you're going to a nightclub – sequins, sparkles, short, floaty skirts, low cut tops and too-tight clothing are not appropriate work attire. It's distracting from what you are there to do and can mean people won't take you seriously.
Apart from dressing there are other very important ways of presenting well – these include smiling, and making eye contact.

How you appear is intrinsically linked to what people think of you – whether we like it or not – so put your best 'appropriately clad' foot forward at work at all times.

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Julia's top 5

  • Casual Friday does not mean old t-shirts or mini-skirts

  • Nails matter – keep them neat and clean

  • Some fashion trends don't lend themselves to the workplace

  • Thongs are a no-no unless you're at the beach

  • Don't forget to smile

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